Boer Wars

Boer Wars
(1880–1881, 1899–1902)
   Two conflicts waged by Dutch settlers in resistance to the expansion of the British Empire in South Africa. Dutch settlers, later known as “Boers,” established farms in southern Africa beginning in the seventeenth century, gradually expanding north into the hinterland, pressing against lands held by indigenous African tribes. Dutch rule ended, however, when in 1795, Britain seized Cape Colony during the French Revolutionary Wars, and at the general European peace of 1815, the colony became a permanent British imperial possession. From the 1830s, many Boers ventured north to establish independent communities that would later become the republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, both of which shared borders with the British possessions of Cape Colony and Natal.
   The source of the wars principally lay with the desire for British expansion into Boer lands, not least after the discovery of gold and diamonds. After the Transvaal was proclaimed in December 1880, conflict arose in what subsequently became known as the Transvaal Revolt or First Anglo-Boer War. Two thousand Boers invaded Natal and defeated a British force of 1,400 under General George Colley at Laing’s Nek on January 28, 1881. The decisive encounter took place at Majuba Hill on February 27, when Colley, occupying a hill in the Drakensberg Mountains with a contingent of 550 men, lost 20 percent of his force, himself numbering among the dead. The British government had no desire to pursue the conflict further and on April 5, 1881 concluded the Treaty of Pretoria, which granted independence to the Transvaal, of which Paul Kruger became president.
   The discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand in 1886 increased British interest in the area and led directly to the annexation of Zululand, part of a strategy to isolate the Transvaal from access to the sea. Internally, both Boer republics welcomed foreigners (known as Uitlanders) seeking work in the goldfields, but in the diamond industry and in various urban services, the Boers often resented what they perceived as a growing trend of immorality and licentiousness that permeated their strict, largely rural, Calvinist society. On the other hand, immigrants, most of whom came from Britain, resented the disproportionate share of taxation that fell on their shoulders and campaigned for a share in the political life of the country. Both Boer republics made large purchases of foreign weapons in 1899, and when Cape authorities refused to conform to an ultimatum from Pretoria to withdraw troops from the borders, hostilities opened in October, with the Boers assuming the offensive. On October 13, General Piet Cronjé laid siege to Mafeking, where Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, the future founder of the Boy Scout movement, made superb use of limited resources to establish a determined and successful defense. At the same time, forces from the Orange Free State invested Kimberley on October 15, while the main Boer blow fell on General Sir George White at Talana Hill and Nicholson’s Nek later that month, forcing White’s troops to take refuge in Ladysmith. In an effort to relieve the three towns, General Sir Redvers Buller divided his forces, a strategy that led to failure in all cases.
   At the Modder River on November 28, General Lord Methuen, commanding a column of 10,000 men, seeking to relieve Kimberley, found his progress blocked by 7,000 Boers under Cronjé and Jacobus de la Rey. After losing almost 500 killed and wounded, Methuen succeeded in driving through the Boer lines, but his exhausted troops required rest, and no pursuit was possible. The British army was slow to appreciate three fundamental lessons: first, it was nearly impossible to inflict anything beyond negligible losses on Boer defenders occupying entrenched positions; second, smokeless, repeating rifles, fired from concealed positions, rendered frontal attacks costly, nearly supportable affairs; and third, since all Boer forces were mounted - even if, through force of numbers, they were eventually driven off - they could simply vanish into the veldt, reform, and fight again on another occasion. The British army could not, at least initially, offer an adequate answer to such tactics, for it possessed paltry numbers of mounted forces, and was obliged to rely heavily on Cape yeomanry units. Until the arrival of mounted reinforcements, therefore, British troops were forced to cover vast areas of enemy territory on foot, with little or no opportunity of pursuit even when success on the battlefield invited it. Despite growing numbers of reinforcements, the British continued to find themselves bested by opponents both more determined than themselves and with considerable more knowledge of the ground. At Stormberg, on December 10, a British force under General Sir William Gatacre lost heavily in an ambush; the same day, at Magersfontein, 8,000 Boers under Cronjé entrenched themselves on a hill overlooking the Modder River and inflicted heavy casualties on Methuen’s force, which not only unwisely attacked frontally in heavy rain, but without extending into open order. The third British disaster of what became known as Black Week took place at Colenso on December 15, when 21,000 men under Buller, seeking to relieve Ladysmith, crossed the Tugela River and attempted to turn the flank of General Louis Botha, in command of 6,000 Orange Free State troops. The Boers, dug in as usual, easily drove off their adversaries, whose flank attack became encumbered by broken ground. Buller suffered about 150 killed and 800 wounded, together with more than 200 men and 11 guns captured.
   Disillusioned with this string of defeats, Buller advocated surrendering Ladysmith, a view that led to his being relieved of senior command. His replacement, Field Marshal Viscount Roberts, had extensive experience of colonial warfare, and from January 1900 he and his chief of staff, Viscount Kitchener, began a massive program of army reorganization, in recognition of the need to raise a sizable force of mounted infantry and cavalry. Buller, meanwhile, remained in the field, only to be repulsed at the Tugela in the course of two separate attacks: first, at Spion Kop on January 23, and then at Vaal Kranz on February 5. The British lost about 400 killed and 1,400 wounded; Boer casualties, as usual, were disproportionately small, with only 100 killed and wounded. Nevertheless, General Sir John French managed to relieve Kimberley on February 15, and on the same day, Roberts, with a column of 30,000 men, skirted Cronjé’s left flank at Magersfontein, obliging the Boers to withdraw lest their communications be cut off. At Paardeberg on February 18, Cronjé found his retreat across the Modder River opposed by French, who arrived from Kimberley. Owing to illness, French handed command to Kitchener, whose unimaginative frontal attack predictably failed against the Boers’ prepared positions, leaving some 300 British dead and 900 wounded.
   Fortunes were soon to change, however. On recovering, Robert resumed command and encircled Cronjé’s position at Paardeberg, shelling the Boers with impunity while expecting an attempted breakout that never came. After an eight-day siege, the Boers, burdened with many wounded and out of food, surrendered on February 27. Almost simultaneously, the British enjoyed successes in other theaters. Buller, positioned along the Tugela in his third effort to relieve Ladysmith, managed to dislodge the Boers from their positions around the town and reached the garrison on February 28. For the next six months Roberts, finally benefiting from the arrival of large numbers of reinforcements, was able to make good use of the railways to move troops and supplies considerable distances through enemy territory. Accordingly, on March 13, he took Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, which was annexed by the Empire on March 24. In Natal, Buller defeated the Boers at Glencoe and Dundee on May 15, and two days later a fast-moving column of cavalry and mounted infantry under General Bryan Mahon relieved Mafeking after a seven-month ordeal. Thereafter, Roberts was free to invade the Transvaal, taking Johannesburg on May 31, and then the capital, Pretoria, on June 5, before uniting his forces with Buller’s at Vlakfontein on July 4. The Transvaal was annexed as an imperial possession on September 3, and two months later, with the fighting apparently over, Roberts was recalled, to be posted to India.
   Yet the war was far from over. The capture of the Boer capitals merely marked the end of the conventional phase of the fighting. Indeed, substantial numbers of Boers still remained in the field and a new, more fluid, guerrilla phase replaced the more static form of warfare that had hitherto characterized the war. In short, Kitchener found himself faced with the unenviable task of pursuing highly mobile enemy units across the vast South African veldt. For the next 18 months, small groups of Boers harassed British outposts and conducted raids, which Kitchener sought to oppose by implementing a harsh new “scorched earth” policy, which amounted to the wholesale burning of enemy crops and farmhouses and the driving off or slaughter of tens of thousands of Boer livestock. Most controversial of all, Kitchener ordered his troops to round up and imprison Boer women and children in concentration camps, both to prevent them from aiding their menfolk in the field, and to weaken the fighting spirit of enemy combatants. Further, British troops laid lengthy cordons of barbed wire and built blockhouses stretching across the country in an effort to curtail enemy movement and communication. Eventually, Boer resistance collapsed, but not before more than 20,000 civilian internees had died of disease and (albeit unintentional) malnutrition while in British custody. In military terms, the war cost British and Imperial forces approximately 6,000 killed and 16,000 wounded, compared to upwards of 7,000 Boers.
   By the Treaty of Vereeniging, concluded on May 31, 1902, the Boers recognized British sovereignty over their two conquered republics, and the British offered substantial financial compensation for the destruction of Boer farms. In one of the great ironies of a war, the absorption of the republics into the British Empire rapidly led to the establishment in 1910 of the Republic of South Africa which, although it included the large English-speaking populations of Cape Colony and Natal, emerged with an Afrikaner majority, thus effectively placing an erstwhile people in control of what amounted to a single - and massively enlarged - new Boer-dominated republic.
   Apart from such far-reaching political consequences, the conflict exposed great deficiencies in the war-making capacity even of the world’s largest empire, as a consequence of which substantial army reforms took place in the ensuing years. The conflict also highlighted the problem of troop shortages. In more than two and half years of fighting, Britain found its manpower resources stretched to the limit, thus requiring, for the first time, the deployment of Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian troops for service to the Mother country in a far-flung land. Almost half a million men would eventually be required to subdue the Boer republics, which together could scarcely field more than 40,000 men at any one time.
   See also <>; <>; <>.
    Farwell, Byron. The Great-Anglo-Boer War. New York: Norton, 1990;
    Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The Boer War, 1899-1902. Oxford: Osprey, 2003;
    Jackson, Tabitha. The Boer War. London: Channel 4 Books, 1999;
    Surridge, Keith, and Denis Judd. The Boer War. London: John Murray, 2002.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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